Before we dive into this thing proper, let’s clear the air about M. Night Shyamalan, a filmmaker whose filmography, as it grew, saw a sharp and unfortunate decline in critical reception. It’s unfortunate not only because his earlier work is so good, but because we have a terrible tendency to treat filmmakers like star athletes, dissecting each film as if it were a game in a season. We want to quantify and listify and rank performances because, well… it’s fun. It’s fun to obsess over. That’s why we’re here, on places like CHUD. To obsess. And as obsessives, we might wonder if The Visit is an improvement over Shyamalan’s other recent work. So let’s talk about it.
The Visit has a refreshingly simple premise: Teenagers Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are shipped off to their grandparents’ (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie) remote farm while their mother (Kathryn Hahn) goes on vacation. There’s some bad blood between the mother her parents, so they haven’t spoken in ages, but Nana and Pop-pop desperately want to meet and spend quality time with their grandchildren before age renders them unable. But as Becca and Tyler get to know ol’ Nana and Pop-pop, it quickly becomes apparent that something really, really weird is going on.
The Visit is Shyamalan’s first attempt at faux-doc filmmaking, a stylistic choice that is very easy to fuck up, even for celebrated filmmakers like Barry Levinson. So many faux-doc or ‘found footage’ movies fall apart completely when logically dissected, but Shyamalan makes the firm decision that Becca is an intelligent young filmmaker. She has a firm goal and a narrative structure in mind for her documentary. This anwsers so many questions and solves so many potential problems. I never felt the need to question why a character was filming. The only big thing that threatens to break the whole illusion is the level of gloss that Shyamalan can’t help but impart onto the film. Films like these have to ride a thin line between intentionally shoddy and accetably glossy. The camera can’t shake too much, otherwise people might complain of motion sickness, but the lighting and shot composition can’t be too perfect, otherwise it’ll seem too false. It ain’t easy, but Shyamalan does it well.
Luckily, even in moments where suspension of disbelief wears thin, the film’s cast makes it work. Ed Oxenbould is the obvious standout, with a natural charisma and an ability to turn nearly any line of dialogue into something that doesn’t sound written. He’s a show-stealer, for sure. Olivia DeJonge spends a bit more time behind the camera, but she’s given some of the film’s heaviest dramatic moments to carry, and she does it well. Deanna Dugan shows great range as Nana, switching from suitably creepy to harmlessly kooky on a dime. Kathryn Hahn, though only in a handful of scenes, makes her screen time really count.
At a tight ninety-four minutes, The Visit is a measured and calculated affair. It never slows too much, but is never breathless. It’s full of well-timed scares, laughs, effective family drama, and well-placed clues as to what’s going on with these daffy old farts that can’t seem to keep from stomping around the house at night. Perhaps it’s a bit too measured in places, maybe a bit safe, but it is otherwise a well-structured and well-paced kids’ horror.
So does The Visit represent a return to form for the critically maligned Shyamalan? The answer, the real one, is that it doesn’t matter. A film must stand on its own, outside of the context of an artist’s body of work. It may be light, silly, and insubstantial fare, but with a solid cast, an effective mystery, and a well-balanced tone, The Visit stands.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars